After Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s masterful performance against Shane Mosley, it is easier to accept his bold pronouncements of greatness. He could probably have held his own with the best in any era.
It is safer to wait until a boxer has retired before attempting an all-time rating, but Mayweather has the qualities that make a great fighter. It isn't just his speed and talent. His punch anticipation is uncanny. He expertly "reads" an opponent so that throughout a contest he usually seems to know what the other man is about to do and what punches are going to be thrown.
Mayweather is probably stronger and tougher and a better puncher than is generally realized. Caught and hurt in the second round, Mayweather came right back in the third as if nothing had happened and outclassed Mosley in every round from the third to the finish. This was fighting of the highest order.
Also, Mayweather's conditioning is superb. He stays close to his fighting weight, the way they did in bygone years. His work ethic is perhaps underappreciated.
How, though, would Mayweather have fared against the great welterweights of the past? We think of the old-time champions as somehow larger than life, but the Mayweather of the Mosley fight probably could have excelled against the best.
The old-time champions are considered to have been tougher and to have had more complete ring mechanics than the present-day ones because they fought at a time when competition was deeper. Mayweather's speed, though, could have given problems to the robust practitioners of the past. When a fighter is having every move countered swiftly and sharply it can induce doubt, and when one boxer achieves mental dominance over another the fight is usually over.
So how would Mayweather have fared against past welterweight standouts? Here are some guesses:
Mayweather against Jose Napoles: Cuban great Napoles, who moved to Mexico City when the Castro regime banned professional sport, was a superb boxer-puncher but Mayweather might have been faster and smarter, with a better jab. Napoles had a difficult fight with Ernie "Indian Red" Lopez, a game slugger who might not have been competitive with Mayweather.
Mayweather against Carmen Basilio: Basilio was as tough as they come, with a wicked left hook, and he beat the bigger Sugar Ray Robinson. Although outscored by the smart-boxing Johnny Saxton, Basilio brutally stopped this skilled boxer in two subsequent meetings. He might have had the tenacity and pressure to overcome Mayweather's superior artistry in a 15-round fight.
Mayweather against Thomas Hearns: The Hit Man's right hand would have been a constant threat, but Mayweather seems the more reliable, steadier boxer, and his quickness could have flustered Hearns.
Mayweather against Roberto Duran: As relentless as Duran was, he might have been bothered by Mayweather's speed, jab and accurate countering. Mayweather would have looked the bigger, stronger man in the ring. It is possible to visualize Duran struggling with Mayweather's style, as in his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard.
Mayweather against Felix Trinidad: Trinidad was an offensive force, but he fought in straight lines, as the British say. Mayweather would probably have outmaneuvered him.
Mayweather against Sugar Ray Leonard: This would have been a marvelous match. Leonard would have been Mayweather's equal for quickness and intelligence, but he had the punch-volume and extra power to prevail, if barely.
Mayweather against Sugar Ray Robinson: Robinson is generally regarded as the greatest of them all. He was a wonderful boxer -- fast, powerful, courageous and exceptionally tough. Robinson's combinations would likely have trumped Mayweather's sharpshooting.